Can Virginia win big in the NCAA tournament with its lethargic pace?

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Virginia has a scoring problem. It doesn’t do enough of it. Not enough to have success in the NCAA tournament, at least.

It sounds like a simple fix: Score more and you’ll win. Duh. But it’s not that easy for Virginia.

Ever since Tony Bennett took over the reigns of the Cavaliers in 2009, Virginia has averaged more than 66 points per game just once: in 2016, when Virginia reached the Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed.

But even that wasn’t enough, as Virginia only mustered 62 points after blowing a 15-point second-half lead to Syracuse, who went on to beat the Cavaliers and move on to Final Four in Houston.

That trend continued this year, as Virginia failed to score 60 points in nine contests, including Thursday night’s loss 71-58 loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.

Defense has long been Virginia’s calling card. The Cavaliers have been ranked no worse than fifth in points allowed per game since 2011, and were ranked first three times during that span.

But at what point is a top-tier defense not enough?

The exact recipe for success in March varies year-to-year, but one thing has remained a constant: score often, and you’ll be alright. If you look at the last seven years, almost every single championship team averaged at least 72 points in the regular season and the NCAA tournament. The lone exception being UConn in 2011, who still averaged more than Virginia did most years.

Virginia failed to score 60 points in nine games this season.
Virginia failed to score 60 points in nine games this season.

And if you look at Virginia’s last four NCAA tournament appearances, the Cavaliers averaged over 69 points per game last season. In its four losses, the Cavaliers offense put up 62, 54, 59 and 45 points.

That will never be enough to win in March.

And even looking at this year, during Virginia’s epic slide where it lost five of seven conference games, the Cavaliers averaged a measly 58.6 points and put up 41- and 48-point showings in back-to-back losses.

At some point, Virginia has to do something different and start finding better ways to score more points.

Good defense and Bennett’s slow pace of play can work. It certainly worked last year. Virginia can hold opponents’ offenses at bay while it lulls defenses to sleep before firing off shots from the outside and getting easy buckets in the paint. But, when opponents begin to force their will on Virginia, much like Syracuse did with its second-half, full-court press last season and how Notre Dame pounced on the Cavaliers early on Thursday, the wheels begin to fall off.

Against Notre Dame, Virginia only managed to score four points in the first seven minutes, whereas the Fighting Irish scored 14. Those early defensive breakdowns can spell doom for these Cavaliers. Because when Virginia gets down early,  its offense doesn’t have the firepower or the speed to crawl back from an early hole. Virginia tried on Thursday, cutting Notre Dame’s lead to six by halftime. But then in the second half the Cavaliers only score nine points in the first nine minutes, while the Fighting Irish built a bigger lead.

Virginia guard London Perrantes said it best after the game: “We weren’t right defensively from the jump.”

Bennett offered a similar analysis: “We weren’t as sound as we’ve been in the past. We were a bit lethargic. When a team can move the ball as quick as Notre Dame – we were a step behind.”

Everything begins with Virginia’s defense. And when that’s off, even slightly, it bleeds into the offensive game plan. The Notre Dame game was the perfect example. A faster pace of play by the Fighting Irish led to an early Cavalier deficit, which lead to more turnovers on offense, lower shooting percentages, less points and a loss.

Virginia has never been known as an offensive juggernaut. But if the Cavaliers want a deep run in the NCAA tournament, they might need to consider a different approach. One that hopefully features a better offensive showing than 50-60 points a game.

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